I think the land makes them brave, farmers I mean. They know the soils and the skies and they see them for what they are, what they make better and what they destroy. They gain the tone of their muscles from the tilling of soil and the raising of animals. They see the clouds and understand their messages so they can prepare their land for it. They see the water and know how it can heal and how it can hurt. They’re brave because they’re smart, the smartest people in the world, my grandfather used to say. I suppose learning from them could be our greatest source of earning those smarts.
I see that same strength in my father. He isn’t phased by the weather man’s reports because he knows those clouds better than meteorologists, he doesn’t stray from preparing land and watching it grow. In fact, he loves that patience it stewards within his heart. He knows the animals, how they’ll grow and what they’ll produce to help the farm keep moving forward. He’s wise and he is strong, but it takes a lifetime of learning to make us that good at being brave. This strength, the kind that I long for, this fearlessness, doesn’t stem from a lifetime of never fearing, but rather watching how fear destroys us, witnessing strength balance out the fear to keep us floating above the current.
Alabama is a state that has a land and foliage unlike other places around the U.S.. Even in the big towns that are full of thriving companies, music, and food, you’ll find these spurts of land, animals, and farms strewn amidst the buildings of steel that tower into the sky. North Alabama holds its own as a place full of land and mountains and streams that pour through the towns leading one to another, casting an easy to follow route throughout my family’s land.
The Mulberry River, one that runs through the land that my Great Grandfather spent years acquiring, runs beautiful and kind letting its sounds rustle in the wind alongside the leaves and the trees. It’s a simple river, one that doesn’t seem threatening or dangerous, but just pretty enough to make you want to sit by it and eat a sack lunch. My Daddy loves that river. So much so he even considered building a house right beside it so he could sit on the front porch and just watch the current flow and never run out. Rivers really are magical that way.
As a little boy, the river scared him. He knew it well, he and his brother both. They would spend their days alongside their father learning the land the way he knew it, the clouds the way he saw them, and the animals the way he raised them. The river though, it was scary. They didn’t know the river the way he did. They saw it as a threat, something that could snatch them up and carry them off into a world they didn’t want to live in. Something about it was unsafe, daunted with demons they never wanted to meet.
They walked the borders of the family land one day with their father. My uncle Eugene maybe 7 and my Daddy a fresh 8 year old. They were learning the land again and again with their Father so that there was never a question as to what belonged to them. The Mulberry river made its presence known before they even saw it as they heard the water rushing over rocks with the rapid sound of strength. When the river came into view it was bigger and stronger than it sounded from the distance and the only choice they had was to cross over it in order to keep moving alongside their father’s instruction.
“Come on boys, y’all follow behind me and let’s cross the river on that fallen tree up yonder.”
There was a moment where the two of them looked at one another as to to see who would go first, unwilling to admit that they were too scared to balance across that tree that had lost the grip of the earth and fallen, making the perfect bridge for walking. They stared at one another as their father repeated himself over and over.
“I’m scared Daddy.” My Father admitted.
“Ya aint got nothing to be scared of, here I’ll just carry you across.” He said as he made his way over to where they were standing.
He grabbed them up by the back of their pants, 7 year old Eugene in one arm and 8 year old Grover in another, balancing the two of them as if they weighed nothing more than a feather. Their bodies hung over the rushing water as my Grandfather walked across that balance beam of a log. They made it to the other side, a little stunned by the adrenaline rush that came over them as they floated above the current of that river, their hearts racing faster than it ever had before.
Plunkett boys weren’t small. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they weren’t actually near 100 pounds each by the time they were that age, meaning that each arm was carrying a weight that was near his own and balancing so flawlessly across, in a way only love could master.
Fear is funny the way that it tries to tell us what to do, what we can’t do, or what we shouldn’t do. But the smart people of this world aren’t scared, they outsmart fear with a love that comes with learning and growing, pain and providence. I think as I listen to my Daddy tell that story, of how he floated above the river that day, I imagine him floating above fear. Like he was supernatural being floating above it and facing it, when really his father was just saving him from it.
Farmers really are the smartest people in the world, so smart that logs are their favorite balance beams, their forearms are their greatest weapons mastering their trade, and their courage, well it helps them cross all of life’s rivers.